Australia is big, really, really big and most of our population lives on the eastern seaboard. Consequently, many of us never get to see our own unique wonders that form critical parts of our nation’s history. In all the years about education and hiking around the countryside, other than being stuck in Darwin airport due to a broken plane, I’ve never actually gone into the city. Other than the extreme heat, I really didn’t know what to expect.
Setting out with a friend in April, we flew to Darwin and the moment we stepped off the plane, we were hit by the unbelievable humidity of our nation’s frontier to Southeast Asia. Darwin itself, is more like a big country town than a city. It has a bizarre charm to it. Stinking hot, very red and surrounded by waters in which you can’t swim for fear of being stung by deadly box jellyfish, or eaten by crocodiles. If this is your first port of call in our country, “Welcome to Australia!”
Other than avoiding the water, there are some interesting things to do around town. We started out at one of the old World War II sites, which were massive fuel tunnels, built underneath the city. During WWII, Darwin was bombed 64 times by the Japanese. The first attack happened on 19th Feb 1942. 188 Japanese planes struck Darwin, an important Allied naval port. Darwin harbour was full of Allied ships and this was the biggest Japanese attack since Pearl Harbour.
The fuel tunnels were built to protect the Allied fuel sources as all of the tanks which were above ground had been repeatedly bombed and destroyed by the Japanese. Walking through these massive concrete chasms built deep into the ground, you get a sense of how critical thinking changes during times of war.
The second historic site we went to later that day was the Darwin Military Museum, which is on the original site of the old army outpost. Here there’s a fascinating, interactive display which runs you through the bombing of Darwin and the experience of those stationed there to defend our shores. There are films, personal accounts, maps, photos, artefacts and lots of military equipment, all of which present a very different picture of the Australian experience of War during WWII.
An amazing piece of military engineering you can see is one of the original massive 9.2" guns. This was an anti-ship gun which they built to protect the harbour against naval vessels. However, by the time they built it, they only fired it to test it out and the war was over. Walking inside the bunker and around the gun, then seeing the projective it fired, you can imagine how loud it would have been when fired.
Most of the focus of our studies of WWII tends to be on Australians in Europe or in PNG. However, this was happening on our own shores. You don’t realise how close we came to being over-run in recent history. Unfortunately, the experience of Darwin and its efforts to fight off the Japanese often only rates a couple of lines in a text book and this is something we need to seriously address.
Taking a school group here is a valuable and eye-opening experience to the fact that War was on our door-step, not in some far off land in Europe or the Middle East, it was here and it was real! There’s so much more to the history of Darwin than we often think and visiting these sites on our Northern frontier, is a great way to give your students a real understanding of just how critical this city was to protecting our nation from invasion.
For more on the history of the bombing of Darwin & the WWII experience:
Darwin Military Museum
Darwin Fuel Tunnels
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